Danny, Danny Röhl – Sheffield Wednesday and the Great Escape

After 10 games of the Championship season, Sheffield Wednesday sat rock bottom of the division, had accumulated two points, were nine points from safety and had yet to win a game. It was the joint-worst start to a Championship season in history. By the time the final ball of the campaign was kicked Wednesday were 20th with 56 points, three clear of the drop zone.


What changed? Danny Röhl. In October the 34-year-old German with no head coach experience, was appointed as the new manager.  Slowly but surely, the young coach dragged his team up the league and in the penultimate game of the season – a 3-0 hammering of play-off chasing West Brom – they emerged out of the relegation zone for the first time since August.


Röhl’s playing career had ended before he turned 21 and he quickly transitioned to coaching; working his way through the Red Bull machine followed by spells at Ralph Hassenhütl’s Southampton and with Hansi Flick at both Bayern Munich and the German national team. Despite suffering defeats in his first two games as head coach, Röhl’s impact was immediately clear. As expected with a Red Bull coach, the team played with tempo, pressing high and trying to move quickly in transition.


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The first win of Wednesday’s season came in a 2-0 victory over local rivals Rotherham United. Both the goals involved quickly moving the ball from back to front and getting runners in behind the opposition. Speaking after the game, club captain Barry Bannan spoke about the physical challenge the club faced in playing Röhl’s style.


He said: “It’s hard because we’re training at a higher tempo now and we need to get a little bit fitter. The last couple of games we’ve had people getting tired towards the 70-minute mark because of that intensity he wants. It will take time but everybody has bought into it and that’s the way we want to play: play on the front foot and win the ball high up if we can.


Four more wins followed before Christmas, and while progress was being made, they still remained six points from the safety spots. By January the squad was in desperate need of strengthening, but due to a razor thin budget, only three loan signings came through the door. The three arrivals, goalkeeper James Beadle from Brighton, winger Ian Poveda from Leeds United and striker Iké Ugbo from French side Troyes all managed to bring something to the side Röhl knew was missing. 


19-year-old Beadle brought composure between the sticks, displaying a confidence with his feet his predecessor Cameron Dawson had been severely lacking, Poveda was a constant outball, allowing the team to move up the pitch without relying on short passing and Ugbo provided the most crucial contribution – goals, scoring 7 in 18 Championship games. 


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One of the most impressive aspects of Röhl’s season was the sheer scale of the responsibilities handed to him. Sheffield Wednesday run a very lean operation. With no Director of Football or Sporting Director, the chain of command goes straight from owner Dejphon Chansiri to Röhl. 


Speaking to German magazine Kicker in February, Röhl outlined just how much he oversees at the club. He said: “ I’m involved in all transfers, all contract extensions, booking hotels. I have to sign off on it all. This short chain of command is, on the one hand, good to get things done quickly; but it’s a lot of work.”


While off the pitch the young coach had his hands full, on the pitch he surrounded himself with an experienced coaching team. Former Manchester United and Shalke sports psychologist Sascha Lens joined as performance manager, ex Tottenham youth and England coach Chris Powell was appointed assistant coach and Henrik Pederson, previously of Union Berlin, became assistant head coach. 


As to be expected with a man in his first managerial post, Röhl made mistakes. Losing 4-0 to relegation rivals Huddersfield Town provided a low point to the season, with Röhl switching from the back five that had been working well for a four that saw the defence overrun on the break. Time and again however, Röhl showed his ability to adapt. After a series of errors from playing it out from the back, a tactical shift saw Wednesday aim for the long pass, and react quickly to the second and third ball.


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In the penultimate game of the season against West Brom, the 3-0 victory that practically sealed the Owl’s Championship status, Röhl set the team up to continually pump the ball long to Ugbo. With him rarely gaining hold of the ball, but with the plan to trigger the press as soon as a West Brom defender headed to a teammate. 


By the end of the game Röhl’s name was being echoed round Hillsborough to the tune of Boney M’s 1970s hit ‘Daddy Cool’. A song which quickly became a regular on the stadium’s playlist. It’s hard to imagine any team in Europe having their manager’s name sung as loudly, proudly and regularly as Danny Röhl’s this season, such has his impact been at the Sheffield club. 


In the final game of the season, a 2-0 victory over Sunderland, a 16 pass move from Wednesday cut the opposition apart, with Bannan sliding a through ball into right centre back Liam Palmer, bursting into the box from defence, who powered it into the back of the net. To suggest the team that played the first ten games of this season could’ve scored this goal would’ve been laughable. 


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Throughout this unlikely escape, Röhl and his team have been given no favours. Protests against Chansiri’s ownership has seen games disrupted, the points total that relegated Birmingham City (50) is the highest to not guarantee safety in 7 years and budget restrictions meant midfielder George Byers had to be loaned out, meaning Wednesday played the second half of the season with just two out and out midfielders regularly fit. 


Despite the challenges, Danny Röhl dug a team desperately short of confidence out of a hole so deep that for large portions of the season the task seemed insurmountable. After the survival celebrations died down, attention among the Wednesday fan base and players turned quickly to the manager’s future. He has a year left on his contract and talks are underway between him and the club over plans for next season and beyond. 


Everyone connected with the Owls will be hoping Daddy Cool is still being played through the Hillsborough PA system come August, but given the outstanding job he’s done in his first year in management, there’s little doubt he’ll be short of suitors. 


By: Toby Gavelle / @tobygavelle

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto